“Why is it hard to come to God?”
A Fear of Discomfort
In the exercise from this second week of the Lenten retreat, one of the questions I’m supposed to ask is “What is my deepest fear concerning my relationship with God?” This is not a simple question.
For one thing, I don’t see fear of God as an entirely bad thing, when that refers to a healthy and appropriate respect. It’s possible to become too casual in our attitude toward the Divine—the way some people speak of God, you’d think they were talking about a really high-powered Personal Assistant. God is here to give me what I want, to tend to my every need, to be available and attentive the moment I utter a prayer and then send the answer immediately. When we develop this approach to God, then what we’re relating to is more a personal projection, definitely god with a little “g.” This sort of idol-making can be corrected by sheer awe in the presence of our Creator.
The fear many of us live with, though, is not respect but dread. And the fear we experience when trying to pray or otherwise dwell in God’s presence is a multi-layered fear that sucks up our energy and puts hesitation in our steps. Even when, consciously, I approach this friendship knowing that I am welcomed and loved already, at a deeper level, a few questions disturb my interior peace:
• God, I hope I haven’t messed up too much.
• God, I worry that I haven’t done enough.
• God, I keep making the same mistakes—you must be sick of this.
• God, I really don’t want to suffer pain—and I know that you allow pain to happen.
• God, I hope you don’t ask me to do something really difficult or dangerous.
• God, I hope you don’t ask me to give up something I love or enjoy.
Okay, I’ll get specific.
• God, I have missed opportunities to love people (my sisters and nephews especially), and those opportunities are gone forever. Too much time has passed.
• God, I know I haven’t involved myself enough in helping marginalized members of society—and, frankly, I’m afraid if I get involved, those issues will absorb so much of my time that other areas of life will suffer. I’m afraid of being used up by other people.
• God, I’m afraid that some of my deeper bad attitudes will never truly be transformed.
• God, I’ve watched my father and grandmother die miserable deaths, so I know that loving you does not guarantee protection from horrible pain, mental deterioration, isolation, and years lost to illness. I don’t want to go through any of that, so why should I trust you?
• God, many of the people who have loved you well have suffered for it—poverty, imprisonment, ridicule, damaged reputations, fractured families. I don’t want to go through any of that either.
• God, I love good food, movies, vacations, and spare time. Do I get to keep any of those when I walk with you as an absolutely good friend??
I don’t like to be without money—and I know what that’s like. I don’t like to be available to people every hour of the day. I’ve seen devoted Christians suffer poverty and become worn out from dealing with the needs of other people. So, I fear a loss of comfort. I fear, to an extent, a loss of autonomy. I know there’s a cost to any good friendship. At the same time, I know that when you love someone deeply, you consider all the inconvenience, pain, and weariness worth the cost, and more. Which means that, in addition to my fear, I feel guilty that my love for God isn’t developed enough or genuine enough to eradicate the fear.
So there you have it, Divine Lover of the world. My personal world is small enough to feel the effects when bad times come. It’s a world that wobbles when the gale winds strike. My existence is completely vulnerable, and that’s not an enjoyable feeling. It’s not even a faith-filled feeling most of the time.
Some of this fear I owe to a culture that thrives on instant gratification and constant comfort and entertainment. My grandparents and parents expected to sacrifice and do without things they wanted. They knew that bad times would come. But now we feel that there should be a pill for every ache and a bail-out for every stupid decision. We must be able to get a perfect mango in the middle of winter. We must find food the moment our stomach growls and have access to any movie or television program “on-demand.”
This sort of conditioning can make it hard to walk alongside the God of reality, the God who designed humans to struggle and learn in increments, the God who insists on healing the deep wound regardless of the pain that might cause. When I befriend God of the universe, I agree to the full experience, to wholeness of understanding, to a depth of comprehension that simply is not available when life goes perfectly. When I befriend God of the universe, I acquiesce to spiritual resistance training. The conflict generates energy and muscle; the broken heart births compassion and patience.
Yes, God, I am afraid that life will hurt. I am afraid you won’t always protect me from that hurt. I guess, though, that I’ve ended up here with you because what I fear more than the hurt is the prospect of not really living, of not inhabiting my life with passion. I fear that my independence from You will simply place me apart in my hurting and trouble, will send me to a lonely place where pain has no company and desire has no hope at all.